A better way forward is possible

By Mitchel McLaughlin MLA, Sinn Féin

This article first appeared on the website Socialist Unity on 20 January 2010

On 20 February Sinn Féin is hosting an important conference in London, entitled Putting Irish unity on the agenda. The aim of the event is to open up a new debate and discussion on the issue of Irish unity, in particular in the context of the recognition in the Good Friday Agreement of self-determination, and the principle that it is the right of the people of Ireland — north and south to determine their own future.

Whilst the northern six county state was created to ensure a unionist majority, over the intervening decades many developments have happened which are eroding this. Most importantly, the political struggle which, by challenging the endemic undemocratic nature of the state and the discrimination and injustice inflicted in order to maintain it, ultimately led to the peace process and the need for a new political dispensation with the Good Friday Agreement. Moreover, the economic dynamics, and the demographic changes, which have, among other things, seen a change in emigration and immigration patterns are also underpinning this, and all of which point to a possible constitutional change in a significant and foreseeable timeframe.

All of these issues will be discussed at the forthcoming London conference, not least because, as the Agreement states ‘if, in the future, the people of the island of Ireland exercise their right of self determination’ as set out in the Agreement ‘to bring about a united Ireland it will be a binding obligation on both governments’ to bring this about. That means the British government — so all of those in Britain with an interest should start to seriously discuss this now.

However, Sinn Féin believe that a united Ireland is not just about winning a poll, but about explaining and convincing everyone that a united Ireland is in the interests of the majority of all of the people of every part of Ireland. That is why the conference will see an important discussion on creating a dialogue with unionism.

Dialogue between republicanism and Unionism has always been difficult. But it was only through dialogue that we were able to foster and develop the present peace and political process, however fragile that may be. Genuine dialogue based on respect and equality still remains critical to progress the overall situation but particularly to resolve the current difficulties threatening political stability. Because of the experience of conflict and division, all too often political opponents are viewed with suspicion.

Too many within political unionism seem to view the process from the point of, if nationalists want it, even if it will enhance the lives of the unionist people as well, then it is nevertheless bad for unionism. Political unionism over the years has suffered from a leadership that has fluctuated between supremacist arrogance and a fearful, inarticulate uncertainty. This instilled a fear in many Unionists that, if respective roles were ever reversed, nationalists would imitate the sectarian excesses of Unionism.

Republicans must deal with these fears by redoubling our efforts to communicate with the unionist constituency directly, with a reassuring message that under no circumstances will we visit upon any section of society the exclusion, domination and discrimination from which we are emerging.

Republicans want peace and democratic change and are convinced that, unless radical decisions are agreed with the various representatives of unionism, then we are in danger of condemning future generations to continued conflict.

I believe that there is a better way forward. The British government, which is not trusted or respected by any constituency in Ireland, has been the common denominator that has subjugated and divided the people of Ireland for generations. I believe that with patience and in a spirit of mutual respect that nationalists and unionists can agree on their relationships to and with each other in peaceful co-existence on this island without the British government setting the terms.

Republicanism and unionism must reach a sustainable compromise through respectful dialogue, grounded in anti-sectarianism that will move us beyond the impasse of the present into a bright future that will cherish all our people equally. To achieve that, we must explore how we can accommodate each other’s aspirations in a manner which does not demand the surrender of cultural or traditional identity. Together, we must determine the terms of our relationship to this island. What is needed is a determined, strong leadership that does not seek a selfish outcome for our respective constituencies but one which will bring real benefit to all. We must show courage and respect in our dealings with each other and in the management of the process of continued change.

Republicans believe that Irish unity, on the basis of equality, offers the best future for all the people of this island. Therefore it is our responsibility to spell out to unionists what sort of united Ireland we seek and to reassure the unionist people of their place in an Ireland of equals. Whilst we demand the entitlement to promote and to persuade for our vision of a United Ireland, we are also open to engage with unionism on their vision for the future. We’re willing to listen to unionism about why they believe the union is the best option. Opening up a public debate around these key issues can provide a better way forward.

Mitchel McLaughlin is a Sinn Féin Assembly Member and spokesperson on economic issues.